Jiro Ono is the oldest chef in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars, and at 85 remains monomaniacally devoted to his craft. With his tiny 10-seater Tokyo sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, receiving notice from culinary connoisseurs around the world, his unyielding dedication to quality, consistency and perfection continues to produce some of the world's most exquisite sushi.
Jiro Ono, who happens to be the leading sushi chef in the world and a living national treasure according to the Japanese government, looks like a grandfather from a Hayao Miyazaki animation. The 85-year-old has protruding ears, a rueful smile, and wire rim glasses that provide a semblance of order to his face. There is much to be found behind that reassuring façade, and with his quietly revelatory documentary feature filmmaker David Gelb reveals an artisan of iron discipline, a quietly demanding father, and a symbol of post-World War II Japanese life. Ono, like sushi, appears simple in design, but the movie obtains a fascinating completeness.
There are just over 100 three star Michelin restaurants in the world, and it’s likely that Ono’s is the smallest. Incongruously placed in a basement in the Ginza prefecture of Tokyo, Sukiyabashi Jiro seats 10 at the counter with a small preparation space opposite and a tiny kitchen to one side. Reservations run about a year ahead, with a philosophy that rejects expansion for mere profit and any form of expediency. 'Ultimate simplicity leads to purity," explains leading Japanese food writer Yamamoto, one of the restaurant’s many devotees, and the film begins by showing the small but careful steps required, such as slapping seaweed wrap on a glowing brazier or the massaging of octopus.
The workaholic Ono considers himself a shokunin – a craftsman who obtains perfection through repetition. He has made sushi for 75 years (he left home at age nine), and believes that if he has an apprentice for a decade they might learn enough to be worthwhile sushi chefs. Time, in effect, flows around Jiro, and Gelb concentrates on providing a tactile sense of the kitchen as fingers shape rice in close-up or gleaming knifes cut with the grain in slow-motion; Ono’s culinary process is accretive and so is the movie.
Ono has a hawk’s eye for his staff’s work, and he answers questions with the jaunty minimalism of someone not entirely convinced this is anything more than a jape. Gelb’s winning tactic is to work backwards around Ono, providing a panoramic setting for such an insular life. The camera increasingly alights on Ono’s oldest son, Yoshikazu, who has been his father’s deputy for many years, and may well be the chef in practical terms. But the offspring knows that he can never match his father’s reputation, even if he makes better sushi, and dutifulness has given way to wry satisfaction, while his younger brother appears freer because he was forced to start his own sushi restaurant in nearby Roppongi Hills.
Jiro himself has no interest in retiring – 'if I don’t keep working my body will become worthless," he calmly says – and his mentality in reflected in the restaurant’s suppliers, who inhabit the vast, ritualised Tsukiji fish market and each specialise in a single fish. These ageing men, who’ve always put work first, are a vision of a Japan that is, in some cases, literally disappearing; each year there are less fish in the ocean and fewer descendents who want to join the family trade.
'Only apply gentle pressure," Jiro Ono counsels one of his junior staff members, and Gelb also took note of that instruction. He steadily reveals more of his subject’s world even as he makes clear the simplicity of his culinary art. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (the title is literal; he dreams of sushi) felt like it could have kept going, steadily revealing more while repeating the daily steps, but at 81 minutes it’s a subtly sustained pleasure to view.